by Trudi Bennett, Australia SCM
Ecofeminism is a weaving of feminism and ecology. It holds that both women and nature are oppressed in our society and that the two are linked. Ecofeminism grew out of a Western framework during the early 70’s, as Western women were Ecofeminists becoming disillusioned with the ideologies of the day.
“Feminists are interested in why women are treated as inferior to men and why they have only been partially included in the sphere of culture. Environmentalists are interested in why nature is treated as inferior to culture and why humanity has not commonly been included within the definitions of nature.” (Maria Iriart, 1997)
Ecofeminism is a movement which seeks to construct new practices based on non-domination. A famous ecofeminist, Warren, explains the western hierarchy as organised in value dualisms. For example, culture/nature, reason/emotion, man/woman, mind/body, human/animal, matter/spirit, action/theory. Western history has seen these dualisms as opposing and where one is inferior to the other. In the history of the West—culture, reason, man, mind, human, matter and action have been seen as superior and therefore the West, and many other parts of the world have become a society of domination and oppression.
Part of the Judeo-Christian culture has been a desire for dominion and control over the universe. During the enlightenment period, science allowed men to recover some of this lost dominion over nature. Things were there to be conquered, mountains, the great depths of the sea, and space. Conquer in this sense is to explore that which is unknown to see how humanity may control it.
This desire for control and domination has led to environmental degradation and the oppression of women. Famous Indian ecofeminist, Vandana Shiva explains it in the following way:
“The Age of Enlightenment, and the theory of progress to which it gave rise, was centred on the sacredness of two categories: modern scientific knowledge and economic development. Somewhere along the way, the unbridled pursuit of progress, guided by science and development, began to destroy life without any assessment of how fast or how much of the diversity of life on this planet is disappearing. Throughout the world... a new awareness is growing that is questioning the sanctity of science and development and revealing that these are not universal categories of progress, but the special projects of modern Western patriarchy... [In India] the everyday struggles of women for the protection of nature take place in the cognitive and ethical context... of an ancient India world-view in which nature is ‘Prakriti’, a living and creative process, the feminine principle from which all life arises.”
‘Nature’ is seen as a feminine image with two sides, either the wild, mysterious spirit, temptress that men desire to tame or the mother, nurturer who is respected and revered therefore constraining abuse. Women are seen as closer to nature because of their physiological processes of reproduction, nurturing, childbearing. This automatically places women with nature—beneath men.
Women are half the world’s people, they do two-thirds the world’s working hours, yet receive one tenth of the world’s income and own only one hundredth of the world’s property. No wonder women do not hold much power. Even decisions such as family planning are made by men in many parts of the world, and this is especially the case where contraception is not readily accessible to women. Handing this control over to women would help lower the population rate and therefore limit many effects this has on the environment.
Over-consumption and production also have huge effects on the environment, tiring resources and destroying natural habitat. Francoise d’Eaubonne suggests that women, as procreators have a deeper concern for future generations than men and therefore would minimise consumption. A story from an Australian indigenous woman, Magdalene Williams reflects this in the story “Enough for their families”.
“Women were also very important in food gathering and they made digging sticks for getting to the roots of plants and to help them in their walks around in the bush or to defend themselves from wild animals. They sometimes used the sticks to dig for snakes that had hidden themselves underground in holes or for lizards that buried themselves like this too. The people were very careful not to waste food and no matter whether it was caught in the stone traps or in the bush, they only collected enough for that day and they would come home to their camp and cook it all up in a great big fire.”
Ecofeminism also has a spiritual element. “All spirituality was originally earth-based and centred on a oneness with nature.” Many ecofeminists relate best with spiritual movements such as Wicca, Shamanism and New Age. These ecofeminists see organisational religions that are based on monotheism (a single, male God) as contrary to the ecofeminist philosophy that sacredness is interwoven through all of life.
During the Calvinist Reformation, ‘nature was totally depraved’ of the divine.
“Populist Calvinism was notable for its iconoclastic hostility toward visual art. Stained glass, statues and carvings were smashed, and the churches stripped of all visual imagery. Only the disembodied word, descending from the preacher to the ear of the listener, together with music, could be bearers of divine presence.”
Up until recently the Church has seen acts of revering the divine in nature as pagan and throughout our history many women were burnt at the stake for witchcraft. However, one of the first experiences of the divine that people encounter is one of awe at God’s creation.
Can we weave ecofeminism with Christianity? Is it possible? There are Christian ecofeminist theologians that strongly support that we can. Heather Eaton suggests that religious ecofeminists believe that the earth is sacred and desire to heal the wounds caused by the splits in our dualistic society. “Many Biblical texts are ‘androcentric’ as well as ‘anthropocentric’, meaning that the Earth is quasi-absent as the drama of human (male) life takes centre stage.”Christian ecofeminists explore different ways to interpret the scriptures highlighting the involvement of both nature and women.
Both religious feminists and ecofeminists have drawn attention to the imaging and naming of the divine and sacred. In the following paragraphs we’ll look at two words used in the scriptures that have previously had human, male images attached to them—’righteousness’ and ‘kingdom’.
Michael Crosby notes that ‘righteousness’ in its broadest sense implies the ‘right ordering of the universe’. Using this translation an ecofeminist reading of scriptures sees God’s dream for the Earth including a restored humanity and a restored world. An example of the link between the two can be seen in Isaiah 35: 5-7, “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a dear, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water...” Jesus Christ is continuing the work of reordering creation through a reordered religious and economic base, here there are overtones of an ongoing ‘Jubilee’.
Ecofeminists view hierarchy, especially monarchy, as damaging to both women and nature. Hierarchy encourages the domination of men over women and humans over nature. This power can be used to oppress those on the bottom of the rung. Jesus talks about God’s ‘kingdom’ or realm as liberating those who are oppressed. Yet is the word ‘kingdom’ sufficient to explain God’s relationship to us? Ecofeminist theologians, Elizabeth Johnson and Elaine Wainwright, suggest that the word ‘Kingdom’ may explain the relationship with more truth.
“If separation is not the ideal but connection is; if dualism is not the ideal but the relational embrace of diversity is; if hierarchy is not the ideal but mutuality is; then the kinship model more closely approximates reality.”
This kinship can also be extended to the earth or more accurately the earth to humanity. In Genesis 2, humans are formed from the ground; we are ground’s kin.
Perhaps with the ongoing work of Christian ecofeminism, nature will be given back her sacredness and Mother Earth will be respected; and women around the Earth will be brought into the kinship of God and be valued and respected in our societies.